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Judging Spanish chickens by their cover

Smoked paprika Spanish chicken

We often tend to take the basic ingredients of what we imagine to be an ethnic cuisine, give it a label and add it to our repertoire.Tomatoes, garlic, oregano? Italian. Same trio but add lemon? Greek. Take away the lemon and replace it with anchovy? Provencal. Remove both the lemon and the anchovy and chuck in paprika instead? Spanish. Maybe a sliver or three of chorizo, just to be sure it’s entirely authentic. Or maybe chouriço … which would make it Portuguese. There you go – one half of the Mediterranean encapsulated in a single paragraph.

I have a dish in my kitchen repertoire – the dishes trotted out for family suppers, mainly – that I like to call my “Spanish Chicken”. I have never been to Spain, although I have been close (Provence, actually), which is like going to England and imagining you know all about Wales and Scotland too. Or to Joburg and thinking you’ve seen South Africa. Or to Paris and thinking you understand the French. (Does anybody?)

Or to Madrid to see a toreador get mauled by a bull and think “that’s Spain”. Which is only marginally worse than going to that other undignified measure of humanity’s contempt for animals, Pamplona, in the hope that at least one of those bulls might get his own back. And then saying, “that’s Spain”. Still, I haven’t been, so who am I to judge.

So I feel a tad dishonest every time I make my Spanish Chicken. Who’m I fooling? It’s akin to judging a book by its cover, making a value judgement. Man with hooked nose and beret? French. Remove beret and give him a tan? Egyptian. Sharpen his nose, make the tan permatan, slick back his hair, give him a big smile and put him in a suit? Republican. You know what I mean.

I was googling Spanish cuisine the other day and found all manner of recipes for, and advice about, adobo. Which in turn made me realise how close the essence of Spanish cuisine is in substance and texture to peri-peri, that palate-tingling cocktail of flavour that we most often associate with Portugal but which has more to do with our nearer neighbour Mocambique than anywhere else.

There are as many recipes for peri-peri sauce as there are people who make it, and everyone will defend theirs to the death. But many peri-peri recipes in South Africa will feature the obvious main ingredients of chilli, garlic and lemon juice as well as ground cumin, which I think is a debatable inclusion.

What it decidedly does need is dry white wine, although this is not used during the marination process, only to build up the sauce in the pan once you have grilled your marinated meat. Then the remaining sauce (marinade) goes into the pan with white wine, more lemon juice and garlic, and once it’s simmering nicely the cooked chicken gets simmered in this briefly.

Adobo, meanwhile, has its origins in the need, in days when refrigeration was scarce or non-existent, to preserve meats, so it comes from the same need that gave the world confit duck. So many worthwhile foods or processes come from basic human needs or peasant practices.

Adobo is a stock made of paprika, garlic, vinegar, salt and oregano which, combined, give the meat both flavour and a longer life. Cumin is often included as well, and some versions replace the vinegar with sherry, and of course these days it makes sense to use the smoked paprika that has become so fashionable for its fabulous flavour.

I’ll be trying out adobo any day now, and it may become a kitchen regular given that smoked paprika has in the last year or so become a standard part of my repertoire. (Try adding some smoked paprika to duck fat when roasting potatoes.)

Here’s the recipe for the Spanish chicken we had the other day, which is very adaptable – you can substitute wine vinegar for the sherry, leave out the lemon or for that matter the chilli (as the paprika has a good bite to it anyway).

Spanish chicken

Serves 4-6

6-8 chicken breasts, on the bone, skin on, cut into two or three smaller pieces each

1 red onion, sliced

3 or 4 baby onions each

8 baby rosa tomatoes each

2 cloves garlic, crushed

6 black olives each

2 Tbs chopped oregano

2 tsp smoked paprika

250ml dry white wine

Dash of sherry

Squeeze of lemon juice

Generous squeeze of Italian tomato paste

1 red chilli, chopped, including seeds

Olive oil

Using a sharp, heavy kitchen knife, cut each chicken breast into two or three pieces. Sauté the red onion and garlic in olive oil until soft, and then simmer for a few minutes for the flavours to develop. Remove, then brown the chicken pieces all over in the same pan and transfer to a casserole dish. Return the onions to the pan and add lemon juice and white wine, stir, then add the smoked paprika, oregano, tomato paste, chilli, salt and pepper and simmer for the flavours to develop further.

Now you can add the olives, herbs, whole tomatoes and peeled baby onions to the casserole and pour the sauce over to cover, then bake, covered, in the oven for an hour. Use a ladle to spoon the sauce into a saucepan and reduce it on the stove top to a reasonably thick consistency, with a splash of sherry. Adjust seasoning if necessary (salt, pepper, lemon, sherry, as you like). Let the sauce settle off the heat for five minutes for the fats to rise to the surface, scoop, it off, then reheat and serve.

One addition you could make is chorizo or chourico sausage, cut into thin slices. Or leave out the baby onions. Or add quartered potatoes. It’s that adaptable.

And, as you may have noted, the recipe is not at all far removed from peri-peri…

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